Design Analysis Series

An in-depth application of our recent articles, observations and conclusions to published board games.

Game Design Analysis – Terra Mystica

Written by Matt Pavlovich


Image courtesy of BGG User MarcelP

From January through May, we published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games.

This month, we’re going to try something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Up today is Terra Mystica, which was released in 2012, nearly won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (and did win a host of other awards) in 2013, and I finally got to play for the first time a couple of months ago. We’ll be taking a critical look at Terra Mystica to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.

Balance – Internal Balance

Probably the most striking feature of Terra Mystica is its fourteen factions, which provide fascinating study of both internal balance (in that the factions enable and encourage different actions during the game) and external balance (in that the factions represent significant asymmetry in terms of starting location, abilities, and income). Although the factions do drastically different things, the game’s multiple currencies help to support its internal balance: one faction might be great at generating power, and another might strongly incentivize building Dwellings, but both might be paths to acquiring workers.

It is certainly possible to make suboptimal decisions in Terra Mystica, but very few false decisions plague the game. One exception might be the Fakir faction, understood to be the weakest faction and owning a victory rate a few percentage points less than the rest of the factions over a very large sample of online plays. (The Darklings, in turn, own a win rate a few percentage points higher than average.) But the rest of the twelve factions win games at nearly identical rates, suggesting that although they make use of different mechanics, each one represents a viable path to victory.